1. Film Crit Hulk, I was reading the sad comments on the New Yorker, and the ratio of people saying “Wow great article!” to, “Why is it in all caps? That’s dumb.” was way, way, way depressing.

    So I thought I’d leave you a comment here, and say a few things:

    I absolutely loved Ruffalo, and his Hulk, in The Avengers. He didn’t have the best lines (that honor goes to Iron Man and Thor), but he stole every scene he was in, from the heart-pounding India hut ‘confrontation,’ to the “motorcycle.” And, unsurprisingly, impossibly, your post explained to me the genius I saw but couldn’t articulate.

    Please, never stop writing! And more importantly, never change your style!




      1. So is this going to become a regular thing, or is this a special article coming on the heels of the Avengers?

        Not that it matters because getting into the New Yorker AT ALL, EVER is a tremendous accomplishment, but just wondering out of curiosity.

        Still, great write-up, Hulk, but you knew that already! I was intrigued, as well, by this specific part of the article:


        Read more

        This is a very daoist interpretation of Hulk, IMO–and it prompted me to ask if you’ve ever read “The Child and the Shadow,” an excellent essay by Ursula K. Le Guin? To make a sad mockery of it, it basically outlines the tenets of archetypal Jungian criticism and relates it to how it functions in fantasy (while all comic book heroes are). Because the simliarities between the quote and the essay are eerily similar, and its uncanny how far back this conflict between Shadow/Self goes in Sci-fi/Fantasy.

  2. Congrats. You deserve everything, all of this.

    I actually thought to ask you about this when it came up in the film. You might have even addressed it in the New Yorker piece, but it’s still unexplained to me. What do you make of the fact that Hulk wants to mindlessly kill Thor and Black Widow one second then plays nice and takes commands and kills only bad guys just a little bit later? Was Harry Dean Stanton supposed to be that accepting and comforting? Were these two different situations calling for different reactions? The only thing I can think of is that one was a voluntary Hulkification and one was not, and that might make the difference. What say you?

  3. Hi FCHulk, long time reader, first time commenter here. Congrats on getting solicited by The New Yorker! I have a similar question to the one above. I thought it was a bit of a leap to accept that Hulk almost killed Black Widow and then became MVP in the NYC battle. I know that the whole Loki mind control/influence thing was involved in the former scenario, but I feel that the exposition of it was a bit lacking. Nonetheless I still enjoyed the movie immensely, it’s just that instance that was a bit jarring.

  4. Great essay once again! Although I have a similar question to that of JerkyTreats, namely, if the Bruce Banner’s secret the whole movie was that he is always angry, then how/why does he lose control the first time? I took the movie to mean that he learned his secret in the interim between the first time he turns and the final battle. But you are right in pointing out that he seems to have kept this secret all along. Any thoughts?

  5. It has been a couple months, but does Hulk remember that time Hulk wrote for “The New Yorker”? That was awesome. Congratulations!

    So…Hulk and his commenters have probably burned out on “Marvel’s The Avengers” then “Prometheus” then “The Amazing Spider-man”, but some issues with the first film refuse to leave my brain. I’ll try through the fingertips. Unfortunately, I don’t stop for a while. I strongly recommend stopping now.

    In short, Joss Whedon’s interpretation of Banner confuses and disturbs me to the point that I prefer Edward Norton’s take. Before the argument though, my propers:

    First, Mark Ruffalo, actor/Esq., brings it. One minor objection aside, his performance is carefully crafted, and more importantly, it hits the audience viscerally before Hulk smash the alien viscera. Good on you, Ruffalo.

    Second, the design of Hulk is very good. In “The Incredible Hulk”, he looks like a ‘roided-out pinhead, an unfortunate misconception of the character and his appeal. “Marvel’s The Avengers” pushes the design back toward the adolescent (oversized head/hands/feet). Whereas Ang Lee really pushes Hulk as an overgrown boy, Whedon deftly adds simian touches that speak to his primal nature.

    Third, Hulk smash good, real good. (“Puny God”, sucker punch, etc.) In point of fact, Hulk smash so good that the smash may elide certain misgivings.

    Fourth, movie as a whole: lotta fun. Ridiculously good time. (Emphasis, adverb.)

    Props paid, to the nitty gritty: Whedon fails Hulk in key, short-sighted ways.

    One niggling issue with the performance falls more under the purview of Whedon than Ruffalo, but it speaks to a later thematic concern. Whedon dedicates several shots to this issue, and though Ruffalo could have softened the blow, he instead plays it to the hilt.

    Throughout the movie, Banner responds to authority figures with a discomfort that most people reserve for the typhoid wing. His constant, twitchy, reactionary puttering draws infinitely more attention than the practiced calm that a viewer would expect from a man who endeavored for years to blend into the background, blending as a white guy in Calcutta, no less.

    If a cop or a soldier sees a man who immediately averts his gaze, drops his chin, and sidles out of the room, the authority will pursue and investigate or, at the very least, stare the mark down. Banner cannot evade detection if he is unable to post up and keep cool even on a becalmed command deck. An effective Banner is a man that other characters (and the audience) forget is even in the room. He falls out of existence until he speaks rationally or roars barbarically.

    “The Incredible Hulk” made the same mistake a couple times, but Norton showed frustration and regret at finding himself in these situations. Ruffalo twists in the stilled air.

    Thematically, his unnecessary movement contradicts the inherent contrast between Banner and Hulk. Banner needs to be still because Hulk needs to go batshit. Banner is all controlled behavior, the Hulk voracious instinct. Hulk is not merely an unfortunate side effect of gamma irradiation; he is a necessary counteractant to the repressed Banner.

    Ang Lee understands man’s repressed nature, but he makes his protagonist taciturn instead of engaging. Bill Bixby projects comfort in his own skin and maintains calm in dire situations yet he remains ever wary of Hulk’s inevitable release. (Norton offers a fair approximation.) Whedon makes Banner uneasy as himself, right down to referring to “the other guy”, yet somehow Banner remains confident in his ability to keep the Hulk in check.

    Whedon explains Banner’s confidence with the assertion, “I’m always angry.” To a comic fan, the line explains the convenience in Banner’s transformations. (Whew! Nick of time! Again!) To a movie fan, the line allows brief anticipation and the rush of Hulk’s release. However within the narrative and as a component of the character, Banner as an angry man flattens his dimensionality.

    It is not unusual for Banner to lash out in anger, but he represses so much more than mere anger. When Hulk takes over, it is a release of a host of emotions, many of them with destructive potential. To contradict Hulk’s article, the Hulk lets loose the id and all of the instincts that Banner so carefully throttles. Whedon’s interpretation reduces the Hulk from a monster of the id into, as Stark so patly surmises, a rage monster. It is a facile degradation of the character.

    Banner works best as a tragic figure, but if anger is both his flaw and secret, Banner is hardly tragic. A tragic character requires a contradiction between his strengths and (usually singular) weakness. Achilles is invulnerable except the heel (and ego). Macbeth is a good king with much ambition but little sagacity. If Banner is always angry and Hulk is a rage monster–these are not contradictory, or even divergent, states. The Hulk has many dimensions to explore without crossing the very conceit of the character.

    Ang Lee does a fine study of…well, a rather boring man-child, but that failure does not keep Bana’s character from meeting the basic conceit. Lee fails to imbue him with heroism, but that’s mostly because Lee’s busily trying to graft Banner onto a Greek drama. Norton does pretty well until he stumbles in the middle of the second–err, beginning of the fourth act. (Hulk happy?)

    If we lose the contrast between Banner and Hulk, the character lacks a key internal conflict, the one which leads to his eventual demise. His dual personality becomes a simple progression of a single trait. In one form, he’s always angry; in the other, he appears quite angry.

    In a larger literary context, “I’m always angry” misses the central point of Jekyll and Hyde. Dr. Jekyll provides the archetype of the enlightened man who out of hubris believes that he controls his every impulse. He is man as the measure of all things. He does not consider himself morally compromised, but he worries about maintaining his apparent rectitude. Jekyll does not indulge his whims, but, fearful of them, he funnels all his baser instincts into Mr. Hyde. It’s better living through chemistry and a split personality.

    The tragedy comes when Jekyll resolves against Hyde, but he finds that Hyde emerges even without the formula. The good doctor never controlled the bad mister in the first place. Banner and Hulk live, breathe, and operate in that moment of realization. Banner cannot hope to contain the Hulk, and he proceeds with only anecdotal evidence of what will set him off. The inability to control the id and the uncertainty of what may incite it fuel the character’s existential nature.

    Whedon making Banner angry brings the character, firmly established as handling his condition for years, back to the early Jekyll. Jekyll begins by erroneously assuming that he can consciously repress the id but chemically release it. Inevitably, Jekyll’s supposed control proves illusory, but the movie actually leaves Banner with said illusion.

    At first, Banner purports to contain the Hulk; later, he decides to control it. However, the control is chimerical just as Jekyll discovers when Hyde asserts ultimate control over him. If this were the origin of Hulk, it fits fine because Banner does not know the boundaries of his condition, but now he’s several years into it yet he still suffers Jekyll’s early delusion.

    For Banner, the knowledge of his condition is forever incomplete. He needs to continually discover, “Well, I never thought _____ would do it.” He finds time and again that as much as he knows about his transformation, there exists a multitude of situations and triggers of which he never dreamed.

    The man has to realize that his task is Sisyphean. He has to know that he knows not. This is a key realization for all scientists and most mature adults. Banner continues his journey not in the expectation of a cure, of a return to an easy existence, but because he believes he can improve his condition, that he can know more without a full understanding.

    His realization is not one of fatalistic despair, but rather it invigorates his pursuit. As tired and frustrating as it becomes, Banner wants to explore and address his condition wherever it leads him. The blog that lists Bixby’s triggers is not merely amusing for its contradictions and trivial triggers. It is poignant and appropriate for the character because it is contradictory and trivial. The aimless id comprises both the amazingly shitty and the surprisingly heroic acts that we find ourselves performing to our later shock and dismay. Banner ought to reassess each time he awakens buck-ass nude and buried in rubble.

    Unfortunately, Tony Stark argues that Banner needs to recognize, embrace, and direct his anger. Hulk’s article pretty much agrees. As gently as possible, what the crap? A man’s “natural” course need not be one of anger.

    In and of themselves, anger awareness and redirection are manifestly unhealthy ways to cope with long-term anger. They are step one and probably step one-half of a many-step program leading to lifelong exploration and continuing recovery, like any addiction. They do not lead us to the root of our anger. They help us bide our time while we examine underlying causes. Admitting that we are capable of anger is a far, far cry from asserting that our anger is and ought to be omnipresent, that it is fine as long as it focuses on an object.

    If directed anger is good, it suggests that Hulk’s destruction is righteous rather than inadvertent or concomitant. What did the poor Chrysler building ever do to Hulk? His destruction comes more from primal instincts than practical considerations like insurance estimates or moral considerations like civilian casualties. Hulk’s destruction, even toward a just cause, needs to weigh on Banner because its full consequence is difficult to surmise beforehand. As such, its righteousness is continually in question, subject to doubt.

    The possible negative result is the reason that any fighter or soldier or any professional that engages in sanctioned violence deserves careful psychological consideration. These professionals tell us, to a one, that their intentions in a situation have little to do with the eventual outcome. The exact circumstances of an encounter are impossible to foretell. Their reactions in the moment weave the final tapestry of a confrontation, almost entirely independent of their intentions.

    Banner might exercise a modicum of control over the Hulk, but his mindset going into a situation has little effect on where he finds himself upon waking. “Hmm, what? Blech, rubble. Oh no…what’d I do this time?” Each iteration of the character contains that scene with good reason. Asserting Banner’s control of Hulk completely defuses the surprise and horror he should feel at reconstructing the events of his Hulk-out.

    Flatly justifying Hulk’s destructive potential removes another consideration of the character: at what cost is it worth having him? Hulk functions best as the vanguard, the shock troop, but when the others catch up, he is as much a liability as an asset. He pushes, pushes, pushes (smashes, smashes, smashes) past the tenable point.

    Hulk attacks enemies until he runs out then he attacks friends (i.e. sucker punch; great gag with an accurate and alarming character trait behind it). Not because he’s all rage, but because he’s all instinct. It’s the same reason we don’t stick our hands/heads into a dogfight, even for a beloved pet. At that moment, the combatant is not thinking; it is acting on impulse, without filter.

    For Hulk, enough goodwill exists toward Stark to save him, but the more telling moment is when they crash and Hulk indelicately shucks Tony off of him. It’s perfect because Whedon does not show Hulk prepare for the jump (Hulk wouldn’t). Hulk finds himself saving a puny human then, safely on the ground, he discovers an annoying hunk of metal splayed over him. *Shuck*

    Had Tony’s flares accidentally fired when Hulk grabbed him, Hulk would have torn the metal man limb from limb or spiked him right to the ground. The audience needs to fear as much as celebrate Hulk’s every move because he’s always a simple misunderstanding away from crushing the friend he just rescued.

    Tony Stark’s supposed insights into Banner and Hulk reveal a further disconnect between the character’s conceit and its realization in the movie. On the one hand, Stark and Banner clicking instantly on a professional (re: superficial) level is a nice touch, but Stark knowing what ails Banner speaks to how self-centered this Banner actually is.

    Solipsistic Tony Stark could not possibly have a better bead on Banner and his condition than the man himself. Tony is the ultimate hedonist, concerned not at all with others’ feelings and emotions, even as Iron Man. The contradiction of his callousness and heroism is part of what makes him great. (Not insignificantly, the contradiction is central to his own tragedy.) His insights into a selfless man would be quite limited.

    Stark’s insights into Banner speak toward Banner’s oddly selfish nature. Banner’s charity in India merely defers reconciliation of his own issues. His suicide attempt is, in his case, a selfish act, couched in terms of chronic illness and exhaustion though he suffers neither. Banner is not wasting from terminal illness (quite the opposite) nor is he incapable of lifting himself off the mat, merely unwilling. (I do not intend to incite a discussion of euthanasia, but in any event, Banner is not an appropriate subject for its consideration.)

    In actuality, Banner fears commitment to himself and his inconvenient life. Like Stark, his selflessness serves mainly to prolong and offset his selfishness. Unlike Stark, he does not have to means to burnish and embellish his solipsism with an extravagant lifestyle and minor philanthropy.

    Banner as a selfish man culminates in the admission of his baffling suicide attempt. Banner is a world-renowned scientist and astrophysicist with a nasty tendency to self-destruct. When he despairs his situation, he tries to off himself…employing a violent, external stimulus? What observation of Hulk ever suggests that a loud explosion will have the desired effect? When he spat it back out, did Hulk grunt, “TASTE LIKE CRY FOR HELP!”?

    For years, Banner observes first-hand his unnatural, physiological reaction to violence, and more passive methods to shuffle this mortal coil are legion. Rationality may not come to the fore in most suicides, but Banner is a freaking genius, and more importantly, a freaking scientist. A genius may struggle with emotional impulse, but a scientist applies discursive reason to even the most trivial of efforts. Suicide is hardly trivial, and it is doubtful he launches himself into it without serious consideration. The attempt does not pass muster beyond parasuicide. (Obviously, this is particular to Banner. Gunshots are majorly successful for us mere mortals and hardly a cry for help.)

    Supposedly, Banner has a heart-to-heart with Stark because their genius binds them. (Hopefully, any reasonable man would catch himself the moment that he’s looking at Tony Stark and saying, “Yeah, Tone. That’s solid life advice.”) In Hulk’s article, he describes Banner as “A MAN WHO HAS LIVED AND LOST MORE THAN IMAGINABLE”.

    Except of course that Captain America is right there, like right friggin’ there. He’s the first preternatural Avenger that Banner meets, he’s the first superhero of any kind, and he’s the first one to lose everything. Cap’s opening scene is entirely about working out shapeless anger to the detriment of some heavy bags.

    Unlike the (lousy) advice Stark gives Banner, Steve Rogers actually moves past his anger. He does not merely direct the anger at the bags, funnel it at an inanimate object. He works over the bags almost absent-mindedly meanwhile–and here’s the important bit–his mind works on himself. He is deep in thought and reflection on everyone and everything that he has lost, all that is not coming back.

    Rogers focuses inward in order that he may move onward. In short order, he’s ready to save the world then rejoin it. Let’s pour one out for our fallen heavy bags, but let’s toast our responsible, reemergent hero.

    A conversation with Cap rather than Stark would be much more userful to Banner. They’re both lab experiments, they’ve both lost everything (in Cap’s case, including his country or at least its ascribed ethos), and they both struggle with anger and frustration over the loss.

    Stark’s got none of that. Stark’s baggage is related to his daddy and moral dilemmas entirely of his own making. He’s the golden boy who has never wanted for anything nor lost anything that mattered to him at the time. Granted, Cap does not have an easy “in” like Stark, but he is still a charismatic leader of men. It would not take him long to elucidate a more appropriate course for Banner.

    The final shot of “The Incredible Hulk” presents the appropriate direction for Banner. He exercises the Hulk, tries to gain control the only safe way he can: in solitude. It’s him working on himself while acknowledging his threat at a cautious remove. He does not direct the Hulk at an external force; he finds it within himself. He transforms for practice, to test his limits.

    In all of these issues, Whedon crosses a fundamental truth in Hulk’s character. Hulk is not based in anger; Hulk is based in fear. Fear frequently results in anger, but fear is not prerequisite to anger. A great many malapropisms assert otherwise, but anger surges frequently without fear preceding it.

    It makes no sense that Banner does not fear the transformation. Banner fears many things, primary among them a goddamned story-high, half-ton, smashy behemoth over which he exerts modest influence. Only an idiot or a reckless fool wouldn’t fear the Hulk. Banner does not wear his fear on his sleeve, but he may relapse to Hulk whenever a fear surfaces.

    The very messy, public divulgence of his fear and anger represents one of the few ways that Banner remains an everyman. It is a common expectation of the Western male to feign nonchalance in place of fear and deny culpability when he lashes out. Young men consistently pretend toward their own limitless strength and invincibility. Hulk actually is omnipotent and indestructible, fulfilling the wish of a youthful audience, but Banner understands the long-term, negative consequences of lashing out, inciting regret in a mature audience.

    The audience connection has never been primarily about wanton destruction. We recognize and dread the sinking realization before the outburst, the quiet just before the storm. We know the numb sensation afterward as we pick up the pieces. The audience is ambivalent toward the transformation because the situation may demand it, but we know that the man will suffer for it.

    If Banner is always angry, it removes the ticking clock from his character. Whedon even makes reference to it only to later dismiss it, “We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb.” (Banner does not realize it, but he’s speaking in the royal “we”.)

    Norton’s pulse monitor may be a bit literal, but it establishes clear stakes for the audience. As Hitchcock shows us, the suspense (and diabolical fun) is in showing the bomb rather than exploding it. Following a struggling Banner is much more exciting when handled like Welles’ “Touch of Evil” rather than Greengrass’ Bourne. The TV show milked these moments, “Aw, come on! Turn already! But don’t screw everything up!”

    We want to see Banner hit the limit because Hulk can mete out some punishment to those richly deserving. At the same time, we fear along with Banner how many innocents might become collateral. After he transforms, there is the dreadful moment when the wrong character shows up, someone we don’t want hurt.

    Apparently, Ruffalo’s Banner only turns when he is caught off-guard or intends to turn. It kills the fun of Hulk’s unpredictability. Most unpredictable is when Banner finds himself impotent at the worst possible moment. If Banner can control the Hulk, then the audience loses the glorious moment where the id fails to assert itself. The scientist’s conscious mind cannot give in to the man’s subconscious need. The inability to switch off or act on baser instinct is the bane of many a rational mind.

    Norton echoes Bixby once more in the helicopter ride because Banner has to find himself at a (quite literal) precipice. He needs an opportunity for decisive, if uneasy, action. To this point in the movie, he’s only lost control unwillingly, under duress. His survival instinct, fight or flight, needs to serve him wrong, just as he tries to employ it for right.

    Beyond anger, Banner curtails many an emotion. Most emotions are healthy expressions except in excess. Hulk guarantees an overload at which point an emotion has negative consequences. Banner’s protective instincts cause nearly as much mayhem as his anger and with higher stakes to boot (could easily kill his charge). Norton grants us the one scene of sexual arousal that needs tamped down. (Because, you know, we lack for chaste superheroes; God, when will one ever have a mature sex life?)

    The stated ethos of Ruffalo’s Banner and Hulk really seems to paint the character into a tight, underdeveloped corner (as well as confounding this writer for the entire length of this movie, let alone a future installment.)

    I hope someone has the energy to weigh in on this. Please tell me I’m flatly wrong because as much as I’ve read about the movie and Hulk in particular nobody but nobody that I’ve read expresses any of these…reservations.

    Also, please do not take this as trashing the movie. It’s an enjoyable…well, frankly, it’s a mess, but it’s a highly confident, enjoyable mess! If you see one movie this weekend, go see “Marvel’s The Avengers”. “Target angry! Target angry!”

    I endeavoured to posit a counterargument rather than a rebuttal of the article. Aside from some key disagreements (prominence of the id in Hulk, effective coping mechanisms), I believe this runs appositional rather than oppositional. In his article, Hulk argues well against assumed empathy. He accurately points out that the contradiction in motive and expression is tantamount for the character. This comment argues that Whedon excels at the former criterion and fails at the latter. The unintended effect on Hulk’s character concerns me deeply.

    Please forgive the awkward formatting of the whole comment. I tried to break larger paragraphs into more manageable chunks for the sake of the comment system.



      1. Yeah, I apologize. Hulk never discourages hulkiness, but I had reservations about posting such a long one. Sadly, this is the pared down version. My opening advice to skip it was partly sincere.

        The repression has always been a negative aspect of the tale. Even in the original Stevenson text, the reveal seems so obvious afterward, “It’s not the chemical, dummy. It’s your very nature.” In fact, Hyde begins by accommodating Hyde, setting up an apartment, getting new duds. He feels no shame for Hyde’s actions. However, the indulgence of the id leads inexorably toward its overindulgence, to the point of overwhelming the man.

        That’s the danger in the Hulk. He isn’t evil, but he guarantees the extremity of any emotion. The movie argues that the anger is less destructive than the repression, but I argue, the fuck? We cannot expect repression to be a viable option, but the point of raging out should be to focus in. We are not going to find any greater truth by tearing down the outside world, even if it means we’re embracing our inescapable ugliness. Yay, anarchy?

        Banner moves in an alarming direction over the course of the film. It posits that he is more like the Hulk than he admits so it moves him in Hulk’s direction; all previous iterations move the Hulk closer to the man. Both shorten the distance between the two, but I dislike moving the man to the monster than the monster toward the man. The message seems to relish our baser nature rather than own up to it and attempt to assuage it.

        Also, Hulk working on an article right now? 🙂 Not :(, always :).

        Nice Comic-Con coverage. I hope your article snowballs the relash to the backlash against Jackie. That backlash is the curse of all of cinema’s greatest clowns, and it is bullshit from moment one.


  6. After reading and rereading the article, one thing remains unclear. How does dissociating “the other guy” help Banner keep his secret? Simple misdirection of others? “He’s angry, not me”? If so, the secret helps Banner as much as when the lead baddie of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” ingeniously disguises himself as…his henchman? What? It’s completely pointless. They’re coming after him either way.

    On the same point, what is Banner’s motive for keeping his secret from the others? In what instance could keeping the secret possibly be useful? It’s not like he’s getting voted off the island unless he keeps it to himself. Everyone else is legitimately concerned about the havoc that he surely does wreak. Revealing the secret would defuse the intensity of his interactions and lower the probability of relapse. The sole motivation to keep the secret is for the reveal to the audience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s